The other night I finally got around to watching Room 237, which, if you haven’t heard of it already, is a documentary about people obsessed with Kubrick’s The Shining and their various, often wacky, theories about what’s really going on in the movie. It’s absolutely fascinating, and not necessarily because of the interpretations. Sure, the one about how The Shining is Kubrick’s attempt to admit to having filmed the Apollo space landing is incredible—“he changed the room number from 217 to 237 because the moon is 237,000 miles from Earth!”—and the ones analyzing the “magic window” and Danny’s three trips on his Big Wheel around the hotel are compelling and provocative, but the real joy of this movie is simply listening to how people make sense of things.
Talking about “high art” as “high art” is always a dicey prospect, so I’ll dive right in: to me, real “art” fucks with your mind and expectations and forces you to see new patterns, to try and analyze what it is that’s happening, since what’s happening isn’t at all what you’re used to. This goes beyond content and plot and character, and is more about the form and style of a particular book/movie/piece of music. Great art feels “new” and leaves the impression that there’s some pattern just beneath the surface . . . (Which is maybe why I love Pynchon and The Crying of Lot 49 so much?)
To me, that’s what’s going on in Room 237. I don’t give a shit about the theories themselves—some are more believable than others—but the way in which the obsessives puzzle things out is simply incredible. That’s the real joy of this movie—having the chance to see how someone else’s mind works when they’re presented with an object that doesn’t quite fit preconceived ideas. (Which is why I think Kubrick’s assistant totally missed the point when he said, “There are ideas espoused in Room 237 that I know to be total balderdash.” No shit! and/or DUH.)
This kind of experience—of analyzing, of feeling like “there was something going on that I wasn’t seeing . . . yet”—can only happen when a creator (or team of creators) creates something and then hands it over to the public.
By contrast, check this post on Mashable about self-publishing and the modern advantages of serializing your work (in contrast to writing a full novel and then giving it to readers):
Allen Lau, CEO and cofounder of Wattpad, credits [Abigail] Gibbs’ choice to serialize [The Dark Heroine, which sold for six-figures to HarperCollins after they examined her sales on the Wattpad self-publishing platform] as “one of the key factors of her success.” With the traditional publishing method, he explains, it can often take two or three years before a book lands in readers’ hands, but serialization short-circuits that. “As soon as you finish that first chapter, you can post it [online] and start to generate a fan base, start to generate excitement.” [. . .]
The opportunity for readers and writers to directly connect marks a real shift from the established relationship between the two typical publishing parties.
“The readers don’t just read the story in a read-only mode; they participate in the content creation process,” says Lau. “Some of the comments can absolutely influence the storyline. This type of collaborative content creation and crowd participation simply and structurally doesn’t exist in the traditional system.”
Thanks to the class I teach in the spring semester—and the fact I make my students give presentations on some of my favorite authors, tying them into one another, creating a network of influences and influencees—I’ve been thinking a lot about “literary movements” and how there doesn’t seem to be the same drive to articulate new forms of storytelling as there was in the twentieth century . . . except maybe in terms of digital things.
It seems that digital believers—by which I mean the people who articulate reasons why digital forms of creation and distribution will help them make bank, and those who feel like writers should take full advantage of the possibilities of digital to make a truly multimedia text—are the vanguard of new narrative forms. Which, I have to say, leaves me feeling empty.
I don’t care so much about the technocrats who look to everything digital to find “disruptions” to “legacy publishers” so that they can find a new way to make lots of money and get themselves a smidgen closer to the 1% . . . I’m just not one of those people. I wish I could afford child care and an endless supply of wine, but I can’t, and I’m happy spending all my disposable income on graphic novels and cable packages that allow me to watch soccer matches. I personally don’t feel a drive to have more than that.
It’s the aesthetic techies who frighten me. “People Powered Publishing”? Books that are crafted based on feedback? I’m all for more interactions between authors and publishers and readers, but this reeks of giving people a variation on what they want. (I just looked at the comments for a random Wattpad story and they’re way worse than I expected. My favorite is “everything repeat the samr chapter. my part favorite is whatever school, whatever class.”) Although I read my fair share of books that are simply entertaining and not “artistic,” I hope that future writers will continue to produce things—like 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining and whatever—that upend my expectations and make me feel like I’m missing something . . .
The Panda Theory and A26 by Pascal Garnier, translated from the French by Gallic Books and Melanie Florence (Gallic Books)
I finished The Panda Theory last week, and am now ready to go on a Garnier bender. Which is fortuitous, since Gallic Books is bringing out four of his books in U.S. this year. I could explain what I liked about this novel, but really, I think this bit from Garnier about why he became a writer should do it:
That’s when the wife and baby came along. All around me, the faithful companions I’d met along the way were nestling back into their kennels, burying their dreams and delusions like bones to gnaw at in years to come when they were old and toothless. Rebelling against such mass surrender, I threw myself into rock and roll—and landed with a resounding thud. I was no better at being a pop star than I was at being a dad. Still, it was writing my pitiful ditties that gave me a taste for words. Deep down, I harboured a wild dream of writing something longer, something like a book. But my limited vocabulary, terrible spelling and hopeless grammar seemed like insurmountable obstacles. So I got divorced, remarried, dabbled in design for women’s magazines, took on odd jobs, got up to the occasional bit of mischief. In short, I was killing time, frittering my life away. The boredom of my childhood numbed me once again with the sweetness of a drug. I was thirty-five.
“But my limited vocabulary, terrible spelling and hopeless grammar seemed like insurmountable obstacles. So I got divorced . . .” It’s an indisputable fact that divorce improves two parts of your life, one of which is your creativity.
Quesadillas by Juan Pablo Villalobos, translated from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey (FSG)
I really want to like Villalobos. He’s young, he’s Latin American, he includes bits about alien abductions in his books . . . But there’s just nothing there in my opinion. This novel, and Down the Rabbit Hole, are technically fine, but they don’t create new patterns . . . instead they feel a bit pandering. A bit thin.
Actually, and I write this despite knowing that so many people I respect love his works, I feel like the “rage” that Neel Mukherjee writes about in the intro to this novel rings a bit false. As a reader, I find the rage of Villalobos’s characters to be of the “look, I’m raging, and I’m funny, look at me!” sort. Toothless.
Miruna, A Tale by Bogdan Suceava, translated from the Romanian by Alistair Ian Blyth (Twisted Spoon Press)
I just received this in the mail the other week, and I have two things to say about it: Bogdan did his Ph.D. in math at Michigan State University around the same time I was there (although I did no Ph.D., and my idea of being good at math is schooling my daughter on long division), and thus he’s automatically the greatest Romanian author of all time (Go Spartans! Just please god go further in the tournament than Syracuse, because, fuck Syracuse); and secondly, Twisted Spoon Press is the most underrated press in the world dedicated to producing high-quality works of international literature. Also, fuck Syracuse. More on that below.
Efina by Noëlle Revaz, translated from the Swiss French by David and Nicole Ball (Seagull Books)
Revaz’s With the Animals was longlisted for the BTBA the other year, which is why I personally was so excited to find out that Seagull was bringing out another of her books. With the Animals was one of the most incredibly misogynist books I’ve ever read. There is no way that sentence comes out right. If you read the link above, you’ll know what I mean, but in short, With the Animals focuses on a narrator who is pure shit. Total woman-despising asshole. Whose literary voice is incredible. Efina promises letters from two characters who write “often to express their intense dislike of each other”! I can’t wait; people who believe you should only enjoy novels if you like the characters should run and hide.
Severina by Rodrigo Rey Rosa, translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews (Yale University Press)
Willsconsin has translated a bunch of Rodrigo Rey Rosa stuff, and the fact that Will is into him has me convinced that I should read this. Plus, covers of girls in bookstores are an automatic yes for me.
Corpse Exhibition: And Other Stories of Iraq by Hassan Blasim, translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright (Penguin)
Last week, Jonathan Wright settled his case with Random House regarding his translation of Alaa Al Aswany’s The Automobile Club of Europe, which Al Aswany deemed shitty for the most insane of reasons. I have a student from Yemen in my classes this year, and he was BLOWN AWAY by Al Aswany’s bullshit (my word) reasons for claiming Jonathan Wright shouldn’t translate his books. Thing is, as a publisher, every time you’re all “authors are the worst! They make this job so fucking intolerable!” a translator will jump up and want a terrible author photo on the cover of a poetry book.
Stories by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, translated from the Portuguese by Rhett McNeil (Dalkey Archive)
Even if I’ve written it here before, it’s worth repeating a million times: JOAQUIM MARIA MACHADO DE ASSIS is the greatest name to pronounce aloud ever. If you add a faux-Portuguese accent. Which may sound a bit sinister. But friendly sinister. I spent a week in Brazil repeating Machado de Assis’s name to everyone I met. It’s a wonderful icebreaker.
Encyclopedia of Good Reasons by Monica Cantieni, translated from the German by Donal McLaughlin (Seagull Books)
This weekend, I took my kids to see the Lego Movie. (Or however you italicize that. Seriously: trademarks are confusing to me when they become commercial pieces of art.) It was pretty awesome (I’ve never seen my son smile like that, which is so happy making), but what was equally awesome was hearing a “dorky” (your words, not mine!) high school boy say this in line behind me:
I know we’re seeing the Lego Movie, but Vampire Academy? A movie with hot high school girls AND vampires? It has ALL the things I think about.
The Good Life Elsewhere by Vladimir Lorchenkov, translated from the Russian by Ross Ufberg (New Vessel Press)
Moldova! The first book I’ve ever seen from Moldova!
Aaron’s Leap by Magdalena Platzova, translated from the Czech by Craig Cravens (Bellevue Literary Press)
Bellevue Literary Press reminds me of Erika Goldman which reminds me of her friend Dubrakva Ugresic, whose Europe in Sepia you should all be buying and reading. Dubrakva is awesome and witty and poignant and a genius; Erika is awesome and quick-witted and fucking brilliant. Just buy both books: If Erika chose to publish it, you know it’s amazing.
Also, she’s not a Syracuse University fan (I think?) (and is it the University of Syracuse? I get confused about second-rate programs. BASH.), which means she automatically knows more about college basketball than half of upstate New York and more than 90% of everyone in Rochester. Sorry, Otter Lodge (the “pub” where I watched the Syracuse-Duke game and was “informed” by multiple people that Duke University is in Chapel Hill. Which is it most definitely not), your bar sucks, and we will roll your indoor soccer team again.
So, even though we’re in danger right now of becoming a blog that only writes about book prizes (or maybe I’m only feeling that way because the Best Translated Book Award has been on my mind for so long), we would be remiss if we didn’t make mention of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Longlist:
There are a few things to note: Although the bigger presses, or big name presses, are well represented, it’s interesting to note how much of the heavy lifting for translation in the UK is done by smaller independent presses (Comma, Maia, Bitter Lemon); there are three books (three!) that are translated from Arabic, which has to be some kind of record; and Humphrey Davies and Anthea Bell have the knack—two nominated titles each.
César Aira dishes up an imaginative parable on how identity shapes our sense of belonging with Dinner, his latest release in English. Aira’s narrator (who, appropriately, remains nameless) is a self-pitying, bitter man—in his late fifties, living again with. . .
Originally published in French in 2007, We’re Not Here to Disappear (On n’est pas là pour disparaître) won the Prix Wepler-Fondation La Poste and the Prix Pierre Simon Ethique et Réflexion. The work has been recently translated by Béatrice Mousli. . .
Even though the latest from Jean Echenoz is only a thin volume containing seven of what he calls “little literary objects,” it is packed with surprises. In these pieces, things happen below the surface, sometimes both literally and figuratively. As. . .
Who is this woman? This is the question that opens Xiao Bai’s French Concession, a novel of colonial-era Shanghai’s spies and revolutionaries, police and smugglers, who scoot between doorways, walk nonchalantly down avenues, smoke cigars in police bureaus, and lounge. . .
For the past 140 years, Anna Karenina has been loved by millions of readers all over the world. It’s easy to see why: the novel’s two main plots revolve around characters who are just trying to find happiness through love.. . .
Linn Ullmann’s The Cold Song, her fifth novel, is built much like the house about which its story orbits: Mailund, a stately white mansion set in the Norwegian countryside a few hours drive from Oslo. The house, nestled into the. . .
Karel Schoeman’s Afrikaans novel, This Life, translated by Else Silke, falls into a genre maybe only noticed by the type of reader who tends toward Wittgenstein-type family resemblances. The essential resemblance is an elderly narrator, usually alone—or with one other. . .